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Fostering Financial Literacy in New York State: How's It Going?

​by Thomas P. DiNapoli, Comptroller, New York State

Across America, people are facing uncertainty in economic times, with rising inflation and interest rates, and the threat of a recession looming. As New York State Comptroller, I track how these economic forces impact New Yorkers’ financial well-being and our state and local economies.

During these difficult economic times, financial literacy is a critical tool to help individuals and families safeguard their money and build wealth through better management of their finances. That is why my office is focused on ensuring New Yorkers have access to the resources they need to strengthen their financial literacy.

Unfortunately, I’ve found New York has a lot of work to do. My office recently released a report on consumer debt that highlighted New Yorkers’ rising debt. A few of the alarming findings:

  • The average household in New York was carrying $53,830 in debt at the end of 2021; although less than the national average of $55,810, it is a new high for the state. While mortgages comprise the largest portion of this debt, my report found that New Yorkers’ student loan and credit card debt per capita were well above the national average.

  • New Yorkers’ per capita student loan debt of $6,180 was 11th in the nation in 2021 and marks an increase of 335% since 2003. While the rate of growth lags the national average (432%), the growth trajectory has been unrelenting and has been rising exponentially faster than personal income growth during this time.

  • Per capita credit card debt was $3,520 in 2021, putting New York as the 7th highest in the nation. Credit card balances comprised 7% of household debt, higher than the national average of 5.5%. Credit card debt can be a particular challenge to household finances. Because the interest rates on credit card debt are significantly higher than for other types of borrowing, it can create significant financial stress when credit cards are used for routine expenses.

Though borrowing may be a necessity for some households struggling to make ends meet, when individuals go overboard it can become an unnecessary and painful burden.

One way to avoid such unfortunate decisions is heightened financial literacy, which can mean the difference between a wise decision with long-term benefits and an unsound decision that produces setbacks. In 2021, New York state enacted legislation that created a single repository of links to all state agency and authority financial literacy information and programs. Furthermore, all agencies and authorities are now required to provide relevant financial literacy-related education information to Department of Financial Services (DFS), which is responsible for posting the information on its website.

I recently conducted an audit that examined how New York state is living up to its goals for promoting and providing financial literacy educational tools to New Yorkers. The audit examined the financial literacy offerings of five agencies, with responsibility for programs that impact critical and vulnerable consumer groups including DFS.

A comprehensive financial literacy program requires a coordinated effort among all applicable entities. For the agencies we audited, although we found that some collaboration exists, there does not appear to be a coherent strategy or overarching plan to coordinate these efforts statewide, nor is there a shared understanding or definition of “financial literacy.” Such a plan, if well-implemented, would likely provide a more comprehensive level of service to New Yorkers. Additionally, fewer than 15 of the state’s 100-plus eligible entities were represented on the clearinghouse website that was supposed to provide a one-stop location for New Yorkers to learn about financial literacy.

Financial literacy is key to helping individuals and families safeguard their finances and build wealth, and state agencies should play a role in providing critical information to the clients they serve. For example, as New York’s senior population grows, the elderly are being targeted by criminals at an increasing rate.

According to the FBI, over 92,000 victims over the age of 60 reported losses of $1.7 billion, a 74 percent increase in losses from 2020. However, in response to our request for information on their financial literacy programs, New York State Office for the Aging officials denied involvement with any efforts that fell within our definition of financial literacy, which we adopted from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and communicated to all five audited agencies. My report offers recommendations for improving not just agency collaboration but their efforts to enhance financial education and literacy.

However, financial literacy does not erase economic and social inequities that can leave many struggling to pay rent and put food on the table. Efforts to increase financial literacy alone are not enough; they must go hand in hand with policies and initiatives to alleviate poverty. My office has been doing this by making New Yorkers in need a focus of our audits and reports. Through this lens, we are tracking poverty trends in our state and whether agencies are effectively and efficiently providing our most vulnerable neighbors with the services and resources they need to thrive.

New York is not alone in having its work cut out for it when it comes to financial literacy. I remain committed to ensuring our government is doing all it can to help New Yorkers get the skills and tools they need to make financial decisions that empower themselves and their families.

The contents of this guest column reflect those of the authors and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc


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